Jean Genet’s “The Maids”: A Swarthmore Acting Thesis

This past weekend’s performances of “The Maids” served as reminders that Honors Theater theses are one of the best-kept secrets within Swarthmore’s arts scene.  These projects in acting and directing present an opportunity for Swatties to put on challenging and often deeply intellectual works as a culmination of their four years of work in theater study and often amount to great performances of plays outside traditional university theater repertoire.

“The Maids,” which ran in LPAC’s Freer Ensemble Theater for four performances this past Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, was not perfect, but was one of the more interesting artistic performances on-campus this past year.  It featured performances that were at once bombastic and nuanced and its 75 minutes remained tense in spite of its limited action.

The play, a work of French existentialism by Jean Genet that premiered in 1948, is based on the infamous Papin sisters, two maids who killed their employer’s wife and his daughter in 1933.  Much like the way the Dreyfus affair heavily influenced Proust, this murder entered the French zeitgeist before Genet channeled it and its themes into his work.

The play’s simple plot finds two eponymous characters, Solange (Sophia Naylor ’13) and Claire (Jeannette Leopold ’13), plotting to kill their employer (Meryl Sands ’13).  Yet this simple plot only serves as the structure on which Genet hangs the play’s major concerns: class, otherness, and filth.

“When looking at plays, we decided this was the perfect thing for a thesis,” Naylor said.  “It has a lot of layers, is very intelligent, and offers three challenging roles.”

Naylor, Leopold, and Sands initially had difficulty choosing a play for their thesis project, restricted by the dearth of plays with written for three actresses.

“There aren’t many plays like that,” Naylor said.  “We could have done ‘Three Tall Women,’ but then they did that for a thesis just a few years ago.”

“I think there are about six plays written for three women and we read them all,” said Leopold.  Though she acknowledged that last year’s all-female production of “American Buffalo” was “incredible,” she says that she, Naylor, and Sands didn’t want to do a drag production of a play for three men.

“For me, I’ve played a man in about half the productions I’ve done at Swat,” she said.  “Which is silly.  I don’t look like a man.”

At the advice of their director Emmanuelle Delpech, the three theater majors chose “The Maids” for its complex roles and themes.

And the three actresses made wonderful work of their complex characters, actualizing Genet’s multi-faceted women.  During her limited time on stage, Sands played a wonderfully twisted woman of the house, conjuring an odd mix of privileged naivety and callous imperiousness.  Her character, the play’s sole embodiment of the entitled upper-class, is one the audience is designed to loathe and such isn’t an easy task.  Sands allows for her lines to beg for just enough sympathy from viewers that she doesn’t come across as a facile caricature, but a character, too.  One that, if only for a few moments throughout, seems to deserve as much empathy as the maids themselves.

Though the maids, even as the play’s protagonists, aren’t straightforwardly empathetic characters either.  Before they switched roles, Delpech had originally cast Naylor as Claire and Leopold as Solange, but the switch was a wise decision.

Though Leopold said that she’d never been able to play a character so vulnerable before, she really excels at it.  Though like all else in the show, this vulnerability is complicated by several other layers and emotional obfuscations, it shines through during the entire play and becomes one of the most compelling parts of the performance.

Genet – a criminal and homosexual who felt othered by society – intended for the play to be a mediation on otherness.  Though the oddity of these characters is easy to achieve, it’s their vulnerability that makes them interesting and sympathetic characters.  Thus, it’s the vulnerability that Leopold is able to present through her character that makes her character work and makes the audience stay with her throughout the show.

Naylor, however, doesn’t bring the same sympathy to her character, and doesn’t need to.  Her acting plays with the same dichotomy of helplessness and disturbing malice that Leopold presents, but leans much more toward the former.

She closes the play with an eeire monologue of significant length that ends the oft-disturbing play on an appropriately dour note.  Naylor admits that she was initially intimidated by the lengthy and emotionally complex monologue, but its delivery belied none of this.  Delivered with the balance of menace and naïve sincerity that makes that menace all the more menacing, the monologue is the crux of the play and though it – like bits of the play throughout – do get a bit muddled – its performance is in control of multiple layers at once, achieving a level of nuance well representative of four years of theater study.


RETRACTION: The print version of this article erroneously lists Alexandra Huber-Weiss as playing the part of Madame.  While Huber-Weiss was responsible for the production’s costumes, the maid’s employer was played by Meryl Sands ’13.

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